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Generations of Arab WomenBottom left: writer Jean Said Makdisi with Fulbright Coordinator Ann Kerr.

Generations of Arab Women

Jean Said Makdisi, memoirist and sister of the late scholar Edward Said, discusses her new family chronicle.

By Christine Chiao
AsiaMedia Staff Writer

Jean Said Makdisi's first memoir was based on her experiences as a wife and mother in Beirut, Lebanon, during that country's long civil war. She was determined not to leave, and she still lives there. In the book, Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir (1990), she imagined the city as her own resting place, writing, "I was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Cairo, aged in America, and died in Beirut."

So it may be fitting that her second memoir, Teta, Mother and Me: An Arab Woman's Memoir (2005), available in the United States this April, is a sort of prequel that takes readers farther back into the author's past. Based as much on Makdisi's research about her family as on memories, this "memoir" edges closer than most to straight autobiography. In it, Makdisi finds that her "Teta" (Arabic for "grandmother") and her mother were not quite the women that she once imagined them to be, but even stronger and more modern. At a Feb. 27, 2006, public talk at UCLA sponsored by the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program and Center for Near Eastern Studies, Makdisi read passages from her new memoir, which she called "a voyage of discovery."

The younger sister of the late literary scholar and political activist Edward Said—who published his own memoir, Out of Place, in 1999—Makdisi was born in Jerusalem in 1940. Her son Saree Makdisi teaches English at UCLA.

The settings and themes of Makdisi's new work resonate especially strongly with UCLA Fulbright Program Coordinator Ann Kerr. The two women were faculty wives at the American University in Beirut whose husbands had known each other since they were in grade school, Kerr explains.

Kerr is at work on ideas for her third book, focusing on her five former Arab roommates from AUB, women whose lives span seven decades of crucial Middle East history. Like Makdisi, Kerr increasingly has come to view stereotypes about docile, dependent Arab women as groundless. As one example, the grandmother of Kerr's former AUB roommate Naziha Hamza was the literary counselor for the men in her village who did not know how to read. "She would write and translate letters for them, which gave her a position of power," says Kerr.

The Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program headed by Kerr works to provide cross-cultural opportunities for visiting students and scholars in southern California. Kerr currently teaches a seminar on "Perceptions of America Abroad: Discussions with Visiting Fulbright Scholars," in which UCLA students listen to Fulbright scholars from around the world speak about their countries and perceptions of America there.

"We need more exposure to people of other cultures, people to people. You can have all the books and movies in the world, but [it is different] when you have people meeting each other in situations like the seminar and the Fulbright Enrichment program," says Kerr.

Fulbright Program